Once upon a time there was a girl named Božena. She grew up in a small village where she loved to gather strawberries and play in the fields. As a teenager she was given special permission to visit the castle library, where she read romantic books and dreamed of a future filled with love and literature. She was known for her shiny dark hair and her dancing, and was crowned the Queen of the Dahlia Ball. Soon after, she got married, but she did not live happily ever after.
Many times upon many times there have been such girls. Girls who love to play and read, girls who dream of love and literature. But not very many girls know how to make such a life.
This is why I need Božena Nmcová. Her story and her stories. It is why Božena Nmcová needed her contemporary George Sand, whose work she read and admired, and whose life she sought to emulate. It is why Elizabeth Barrett Browning also needed George Sand. And why Elizabeth Stuart Phelps needed Elizabeth Barrett Browning. As Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One’s Own,“Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, and George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter….All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn.” We need to know the stories of those who have come before, so that we know our stories are worth telling too.
Who is Božena Nmcová? Milan Kundera calls her “the Mother of Czech prose.” Franz Kafka, who lived in Prague and spoke German, received a copy of Nmcová’s novel Babika from his Czech girlfriend Milena Jesenská and later said, “The only linguistic music I know in Czech … is that of Božena Nmcová.” She was the Czechoslovak equivalent of Hans Christian Andersen or the Grimm Brothers. She was also a mother of four and an unhappy wife who had public affairs with fellow intellectuals in the 1840s and ’50s. She epitomized and confounded expectations of women. She died in sickness and poverty, but was buried a hero of Czech nationalism. Today her image is reprinted on Czech stamps and currency, her dark hair pulled in a low bun, her neck bare. In statues all around the Czech and Slovak Republics, she is majestic, motherly, maidenly. In reality, she seems to have been all those things—and much more.
As with most important encounters in my life, I discovered Božena Nmcová by chance. (“Chance and chance alone has a message for us,” says Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Most people fall for Prague’s architecture; I fell for its literature. I fell for the stories of Kundera, Kafka, Ivan Klíma, Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Škvorecký, Karel Apek, Jaroslav Seifert, and Jaroslav Hašek. But they were all men. All their stories were of wars and paramours. Božena Nmcová was not only a woman writer in a canon of men, but a woman writer who preceded them all, who emerged at a time when the only other Czech female author was Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová, a writer of cookbooks, whose ideal girl was one who devoted herself to attending to her husband. Nmcová, on http://www.thecommononline.org/new-arabic-writing-cataclysm-in-fast-forward/the other hand, was unable to attend to her husband, with whom she felt incompatible, and wrote tales of powerful and playful heroines.
In 2003, I went to Prague for the first time, on a whim. I was visiting a friend in Berlin, and she suggested a weekend trip. We toured the castle grounds and the inside of St. Vitus Cathedral, where we climbed the spiral staircase to the top of the clock tower. The view of Prague’s red roofs spread out before me like a field of poppies in the gray of mid-March. I could see Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge, both of which we’d crossed to get there. The gray Vltava River had flooded the year before, and there was evidence of its destruction on the walls of many of the buildings in Malá Strana at the foot of the castle’s hill. Everything in sight, except perhaps the Žižkov Television Tower, which rose from the distant hill like an oversized metal cactus, was between one hundred and one thousand years old. As I stood at the top of a five-hundred-year-old stone clock tower, I felt like a girl in a fairy tale.
One could even say that a spell had been cast upon me—perhaps by the Noon Witch. She may have already bewitched me an hour earlier, as my friend and I joined a hundred or so other tourists to watch the Astronomical Clock strike twelve in Old Town Square. On the clock’s façade are angels, saints, serpents, scholars, and skeletons. Like Nmcová’s Divá Bára, I was spellbound, cursed to spend a decade reading and writing about Prague, reading and writing its stories.
In Divá Bára, which translates to Wild Báraor Bewitched Bára, the heroine, Bára, is believed to have been cursed by the midday spirit when she was an infant, thus turned into a changeling. As the story puts it, shortly after giving birth, Bára’s mother “was cooking her husband’s dinner and, forgetting that a woman, after confinement, must never emerge from her room precisely at noon or after the Angelus [devotion has been recited], remained standing in the kitchen under the chimney and went on cooking. And then…something rustled past her ears like an evil wind, spots floated before her eyes, something seemed to pull her by the hair and felled her to the floor. ‘That was the noon-witch!’ [the local women] all cried. ‘Let us see if she has not exchanged a strange child for your Bára.’” As Bára grows up, the town remains convinced that she is a changeling; Bára herself is convinced that she is not, and even goes so far as to mock the town by pretending to be a ghost. The town learns of her actions, and Bára accepts her punishment, which is to spend a terrifying night in a graveyard, refusing to be saved even by her father. The story was inspired by George Sand’s La Petite Fadette, and Bára is one of Nmcová’s many female characters who challenge the beliefs of their societies.
Perhaps that spell from the Noon Witch is what led me to the castle’s gift shop, where I bought an illustrated copy of Czech Fairytales by Božena Nmcová and Karel Jaromír Erben for my six-year-old daughter. But I did not notice, even as I paid, that Božena Nmcová was also the figure whose portrait illustrated the five-hundred-crown note.
I did notice eventually. A woman? On national currency? Who could it be? As with any folktale, it’s hard to pin down the origin of her story. Just as Bára might have been bewitched, or a changeling, Božena might have been born in 1820, or 1818, or 1817. Was her mother a Czech servant and her father a Viennese coachman? Or was she the illegitimate daughter of royalty? Some claim that her mother was a princess and her father was Prince Metternich, and that the couple, each already married to others, let the Czech servant girl and Viennese coachman raise their daughter. Was Nmcová’s husband a decade older than she or more than twice her age? One website suggests that he, a fellow Czech nationalist, was proud of his wife’s career, another that he resented it.
Well, I thought, such contradictions might be expected online. So I went to the university library and consulted the scholars, searching for Nmcová’s name in indexes of English-language books about Czech literature and culture. In hundreds of pages, I would often find a mere sentence or a paragraph that praised her fairy tales and lamented her bitter life. Over and over this came up: her short, bitter life. I found these claims surprising in the context of her writing. Like most fairy tales, her Czech and Slovak stories charm. Babika (translated as Granny, or The Grandmother), her most autobiographical work, is a quaint idyll that, even with its dark undercurrents, revels in the pleasures of communal stories and the cycles of nature.
I harvested these details about Nmcová the way Dr. Frankenstein harvested body parts to assemble his creature. Her husband was indeed much older (Josef Nmec was born in 1805, thus twelve to fifteen years older than she), and her marriage was not happy. Her husband’s political beliefs made him the target of police, especially after the failed nationalist revolts against the Habsburg Empire in 1848, so the family constantly had to relocate. Nmcová had extramarital affairs and was judged by the public. She had four children and suffered the death of her oldest son to tuberculosis when he was fifteen years old. A decade later, in 1862, despite the success of Babika, she spent the end of her own young life in poverty and declining health, possibly dying of an aggressive cancer.
Well, I thought, what else could one expect of the life of a woman writer 150 years ago?
But then I found a book that transformed my perspective. In Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers, I encountered a Božena I’d not yet read about: the Božena of her letters.
In her letters she is a new, sad wife:
In the first eight days of my marriage I cried my first bitter tears! How beautiful I had imagined life at the side of a man I loved….I saw very early…that our natures were not suited for each other.
She is an illicit lover:
Keep well, my Ivan! I could easily slip into romantic thoughts. The moon shines with a full face into my windows, the fragrance [of flowers] blows pleasantly into my room, all around is silence, there is nothing lacking but the sound of a stage coach stopping under the windows. Kisses from your B.
She is a worried mother:
As if there was not enough unhappiness, the doctor tells me he won’t recover. …If only that child would get better!
She is accused:
I also hear such unpleasant reports ruining my reputation that I don’t even know how I’ll show my face in Prague.
These letters reveal a woman who spoke frankly of love, marriage, and sex—all the things she was not allowed to speak frankly about in her public writing.
She tells her husband that she could have had any man she wanted:
I had more than one admirer—one had a mind, the other a body, that one a heart, another intelligence, but in the end I never found what I longed for: a man to whom I would gladly subject myself. —All had their weaknesses. I would choose none of them for a husband.
In another letter, she tells a lover that she denies her husband sex:
That marital duty is the foundation of everything for him and he cannot get it either by threats or by begging.
Then she admits to feelings of sexual desire:
And yet I would sometimes like to sacrifice in that temple of Venus. Oh I sometimes long for it very much, and I have to muster my whole strength to overcome myself.
Her later letters reveal an abusive marriage:
When I left Prague, I was determined not to return to my husband…. In the morning he began screaming and calling me names…and didn’t care if a maid was there. When I tried to protect Dora from his beating, he hit me—and at that time I was already sick.
If it was not enough that she was sick, that she was poor, that her husband beat her, said she would never write again, and tore her manuscript into shreds, there was no hope of money from the work at which she excelled:
I cannot make a living with literature. But things are even worse with women’s work.…Even if in all this sorrow I could pull myself together and write, there would be no buyers.…[Y]ou know that somebody who supports herself by literature is a terribly poor thing.
When I read these letters, I felt kinship, sisterhood, gratitude. And confusion. Why hadn’t I ever heard of Božena Nmcová? Why was the available information so contradictory and reductive? Why weren’t the rest of her letters translated into English?
One answer is that, like her American contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe (who was also, in the 1850s, inspired to write her most popular book following the death of a child and in response to national political upheaval), Nmcová was a popular woman writer whose work and words burrowed into the national consciousness for more than a half century and then faded into the tumultuous twentieth century. Although she was embraced by a new generation of scholars and biographers and Babika continued to be taught to Czech children, her work was known primarily in Czechoslovakia, which continued to struggle for its nationhood and autonomy. For history is told by the victors. We know fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, and Andrew Lang because the authors are men and their nations were politically triumphant. During Nmcová’s life, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and Slovakia were under the control of the Habsburg Dynasty, and one of her primary goals as a writer was to record and promote the Slavic customs and Czech and Slovak languages. But these regions did not become an independent Czechoslovakia until 1918, more than fifty years after her death. And the country’s independence was quickly subsumed, once again, by a century of German and Russian occupiers. Nmcová’s life and work became nationally relevant once again in this context. Citizens and scholars turned to her tales of Czech and Slovak life with a new appreciation and national fervor. But these stories would remain hidden behind the iron curtain for decades.
It has not even been twenty-five years since the Velvet Revolution, so perhaps I am too impatient for a process that will surely take time: the rendering into English of Nmcová’s letters, of the numerous scholarly books and biographies, of her many untranslated books. Even the major fairy tales and Babika , which have been translated into English, are often outdated or out of print. A few stories, like Divá Bára, which is a significantly longer story inspired by folk narratives, were translated decades ago and are available as e-texts thanks to university websites. When I first began researching Nmcová in earnest five years ago, the only version of Babika I could find in English was translated in the 1920s and photocopied and bound in a metal clip, stored in the Indiana University library. When I visited Prague in 2010, I finally found a new English translation, published by a British press, for sale in bookstores. Slowly, slowly, things are changing. Jack Zipes, translator of the Brothers Grimm tales, and a scholar who has been writing about fairy tales since the 1970s, included Nmcová in his 2012 The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. In a chapter that introduces four relatively unknown women fairy tale writers, he devotes six pages to a translation of Nmcová’s “The Twelve Months” and three pages to an overview of her life and work, emphasizing her portrayal of “active” and “persecuted” heroines. Zipes argues that the four women fairy tale writers he introduces, including Nmcová, have been “‘persecuted’ through thoughtless disregard.” He claims that their tales are significant not only “for what they reveal about the beliefs and customs of specific communities in the nineteenth century and about the role of women,” but for the “interpretation of particular tale types such as the innocent persecuted heroine.” Zipes’s short introduction is a good start, but it is only a start.
Like Nmcová, I am a storyteller, and I wanted to tell her story, even if I didn’t have access to all of the information. My lack of access, even the lack of information, therefore has become part of the story. The information I gathered came in bits, and those bits had strong voices: those of the dismissive scholar, the enthusiastic biographer, the awkward English translator, the experts on radio interviews, Nmcová’s husband and lovers, and Nmcová herself as fairy tale writer, novelist, lover, and letter writer.
For me, the way these voices contradict and echo one another is the story. So I began to compile and compose The Bitter Life of Božena Nmcová, a biography told entirely through these voices and found fragments. Because so many representations of Nmcová are visual—statues, paintings, book illustrations, and even her tombstone—the biographical collage also includes altered digital and handmade images of travel photographs, paintings, and texts.
In the summer of 2012 I enrolled in a month-long Czech language course in Prague, hoping to learn enough Czech to begin translating Nmcová’s letters on my own, but instead I humiliated myself on a daily basis by saying things like, I’m a professor. I’m from America. I ate a car for breakfast.
That summer was also a dramatic time for me personally, and, as I studied her language in the city where she lived and wrote for so many years, I felt more connected to Božena than ever. I was almost forty-two, the age she was when she died. Every day on the bus to and from the Czech class, I passed by the apartment where, according to the plaque, Božena Nmcová’s Grandmother was born. After a lifetime as the privileged eldest grandchild, I had just lost both of my beloved grandparents. I was with my Granny when she died on Mother’s Day just two months earlier. And while in Prague, I took a train to my grandfather’s family village in Slovakia, where I was welcomed by his first cousins whom he had never met, saw the house where his mother was born, and attended the five-hundred-year-old village church where she had been baptized. I cried several times during the visit (between plentiful shots of slivovitz and fumbling attempts to speak Czech to Slovak relatives) just thinking how much I wanted to be able to tell my grandfather I’d finally made it to his family’s home. Nmcová is just as famous in Slovakia as in the Czech Republic, because she traveled both regions and wrote in both languages, recording the tales of the folk. My older cousin translated my mission simply: “She is writing about Božena Nmcová.” The rest of the family nodded and smiled.
Beyond all this, though, every day during that month in Prague, alone on the bus to Czech class, I pondered my life back home: especially my unhappiness in my marriage.
In the spirit of Božena’s letters, and of the postcards I was sending to family and friends, I began to write postcards to Božena:
I took a train from Prague to Kutná Hora. The bus from the station stopped at a panelák complex where a teenage couple boarded the bus. They sat close to one another a few seats in front of me. She rested her magenta head on his shoulder and wove her fingers through his thick blond hair.
I thought of the young love of your characters, Kristla and Mila, Bára and the huntsman, Viktorka and the soldier. I thought of me and my husband. We were young lovers once. Maybe the couple on the bus would have a happy ending, I thought, or maybe they are already doomed.
I secretly snapped a picture of the young couple on the bus. The digital clock is in the top right of the picture. Maybe all that matters is that they were in love that summer day at 16:28.
At the Sedlec Ossuary—the Bone Church—near Kutná Hora, I felt lucky to be alive. Lucky to have my bones inside of my skin. Lucky to not have to worry about the plague that killed the people who are now chandelier parts. Candles rise from skulls set amid petals of pelvic bones. Femurs dangle like long rows of pipe chimes. And jawbones at the top, hundreds of them, wide open, not making a sound.
When my Granny was dying, her jaw was slack. Her false teeth were gone, no longer needed. Her lips and tongue were dry. She communicated with a slow blink of her eyes. Yes, I’m thirsty. My mom took a lollipop stick topped with a soft sponge, dipped it into a small cup of water, and placed it in Granny’s mouth so she could drink.
When I arrived in Pennsylvania on the Thursday before she died, my Granny could still mouth the words “I love you.” And she could eat ice cream. She always loved coffee ice cream, and when my mom suggested she have some, Granny’s eyebrows went up. And after she took a bite, her eyes closed contentedly.
The next day her eyes didn’t close. They stared up toward the vaulted wooden ceiling. I positioned myself in front of her eyes and she focused on me for a moment before it was clear she was looking through me again.
By the end of the month of Czech classes, I felt bold enough to travel alone from Prague to Božena Nmcová’s hometown in eská Skalice, two hours away. The town’s website did not provide any information in English, but it said that 2012 was Rok Boženy Nmcové: The Year of Božena Nmcová, marking the 150th anniversary of her death in 1862. There, I would find the Božena
Nmcová Museum, Granny’s Valley, and Ratiboice Castle, where Nmcová set scenes in Babika and where she was possibly conceived.
Most of Babika’s plot, such as it is, follows community holidays and the changing seasons; these events provide opportunities for villagers to come together and exchange stories, usually while they prepare for the event. The telling of stories amid traditional “women’s work” connects Babika and Nmcová to the long and important tradition of fairy tales. In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner details the historical roots of fairy tales in gossip and old wives’ tales, concluding that one of the most overlooked aspects of fairy tales is “the female character of the storyteller.” The Grimm Brothers’ sources included a vast array of women relatives and in-laws. Warner argues that “although male writers and collectors have dominated the production and dissemination of popular wonder tales, they often pass on women’s stories from intimate or domestic milieux.” The storytelling in Babika emerges from this domestic milieux, specifically, as the narrator says, the “pleasures [that] were brought with the spinning wheel. With it came the spinners, and with them beautiful stories and merry songs.” When the spinning wheel came out, the stories began to flow.
One of the darker stories that counters the otherwise idyllic aspects of Babika is the story of Viktorka, who haunts the village through her forest wanderings and mournful lullabies. The gamekeeper lights a pipe and tells Viktorka’s story to the grandmother while his wife works at her spinning. Viktorka was a beautiful young girl who was followed by a dark-eyed soldier from outside the village. At first she was repulsed by him, but eventually he became the source of temptation for her. She agreed to have an amulet made to protect her from his charms. Despite the protection, one day she felt compelled to go to the field and pick clover, and there she encountered the soldier and he professed his love for her. She stepped on a thorn, passed out, and awoke at home with a bloody foot that had been bound by a handkerchief. Soon after, when the soldier had to leave the village with his regiment, Viktorka too disappeared, only to return almost a year later, pregnant. She wandered the forest in tattered clothes, sleeping in a cave and not speaking to anyone. One night the gamekeeper saw her throw something into the dam. He realized it must have been her newborn child, for she then sat on a stump and sang a lullaby for two hours, the same one that she continued to sing for the rest of her life.
Viktorka’s story was based on that of an actual woman from the area, and serves as a melancholy counterpoint to the book’s other narratives, which consist of pleasant anecdotes of festive village life, including visits to the princess. At the end of the book, Viktorka dies, struck by lightning. In real life she is said to have passed out on the side of the road, drunk. Just as the villagers had to ascribe Viktorka’s choices to a curse, Nmcová provided a dramatic literary conclusion to a tragic life.
Another striking element in Babika is the backstory of the grandmother and the private moments when she recalls that past. In a scene at the castle, the grandmother tells the princess that her husband was a soldier who died from wounds received in battle. For fleeting moments, usually at night, the grandmother reflects on this painful past, and the reader can begin to understand the strength it must take to be the figure that the community needs her to be: full of goodness and wisdom, not sad or weak.
One night the grandmother is out doing an errand, and when she pauses, the narrator wonders aloud: “What has delayed her by the garden? Does she hear the pleasant warbling of two nightingales in the garden shrubbery, or Viktorka’s sorrowful and broken melody that resounds from the dam?” Then the grandmother sees Kristla, the innkeeper’s daughter who fears her beloved will be conscripted, gathering leaves for a St. John’s wreath, and becomes “buried in a deep reverie” of the wreath she made years ago for her husband, Jií. When she says aloud, “How long, Jií, how long?,” she is referring both to the past, when she feared he would be delayed in returning for the wreath, and to the near future, when she will die and be with him again. A gentle breeze touches her cheek, and she imagines it is a kiss from him. Such reflections on loss and death, along with the story of Viktorka, create a melancholy undertone to an otherwise nostalgic and idyllic narrative. These are the elements that most appeal to me as a fellow writer, and are the moments that seem most true to
Nmcová’s own troubled life.
My grandparents were high school sweethearts. Just shy of their sixty-ninth anniversary, my grandfather died. Five months later, just days before Granny’s death, my mom read the letters he had written to her in the 1940s when he was a soldier stationed in India: I sure do miss you, sweetheart. Counting the days till we can be together again.
I married my high school sweetheart.
We hardly knew each other. My friends tricked us. They called him and pretended to be me. They told him to call me back. He called. I knew they had tricked us, and I knew I now had to ask him to the dance, and I thought to myself, If he says no then you will forget all about this moment, and if he says yes then you will marry him, and I asked him to the dance and he said yes.
I skipped the final Tuesday of my Czech class and headed to eská Skalice, where no one, not even the woman at the train station’s info booth, spoke English. It was a two-mile trail walk to Ratiboice Castle, where the grandmother would have exchanged stories with the princess (and where, it is rumored, Nmcová may have been conceived out of wedlock by royal parents). I visited Viktorka’s Dam (as it is still called) and continued to what is called Granny’s Valley, which stretches out in long fields of lush green and is marked by a large stone statue of—not a man on a horse, as is so typical in Europe—but a pudgy grandmother, her several grandchildren, and two content dogs.
Before that, though, I had been the only visitor in the whole museum, the former Steidler’s Inn where Nmcová was once crowned Queen of the Dahlia Ball. After spending so much time with so little material about Nmcová, stepping into the museum felt like a fairy tale moment of being transported into another world. The first room, the size of a school cafeteria and lined with display cases along three long walls of windows, was filled with timelines, pictures of her and her family, and even personal items like her notepad, her dress, and a lock of her hair. Some of the placards included English translations; most didn’t. I took dozens of photos in that room alone, not realizing that the nearly two-hundred-year-old large yellow building would go on for room after room, filled with Nmcová’s portraits, busts, and furniture and numerous editions of her books. I eventually came upon what was obviously the dance hall where she would have been crowned “queen.” It was a grand room with parquet floors, chandeliers, thick wooden pillars, and lots of natural light. On one side was a modest stage with a piano and cello. I was alone in the quiet room and tried to picture a scene of Nmcová dancing, delighted to think she had perhaps stood—or danced—in the very spot where I now stood.
In Czech class we learned the verb tancovat, “to dance.” In our workbook we had to complete the Czech sentences. In the garden Tomas and Ana __________. The implied answer was “they walk.” But I wrote tancujou: “they dance.” It’s what I would do with Tomas in the garden. My teacher was not amused.
But the following week when I went to eská Skalice, I didn’t need my Czech dictionary to translate the second line of the sign on the outside wall of your museum:
Zde Na Jiinkové Slavnosti
Tanila Božena Nmcová
1837 A 1844.
I knew it said that here, you had danced.
At the Sadie Hawkins dance we danced. After the dance we danced and kissed. And I knew I had been right that I would marry him.
You wrote that when you got married, you wept your first bitter tears.
I cried at my wedding too. I don’t think they were bitter tears, but my in-laws were worried.
The tour ended in a courtyard garden filled with dahlias. Hungry and tired, I walked across the street to a potraviny, bought a sandwich and a drink, and had a picnic between the museum and the church where she was married when she was only a teenager. I thought of her first bitter tears. I thought of how her husband, presented sympathetically if briefly in the museum, had turned on her at the end, saying: “You good-for-nothing. You will croak somewhere behind a fence. Nobody will even spit at you. You should be selling matches.” He could not have been more wrong. A thousand mourners attended her candlelit funeral procession to the most prestigious cemetery in Prague. He has gone down in history as the husband of Božena Nmcová.
On a nearby bench in the museum courtyard was a small group of teenagers killing time on a summer day. Before me was a statue of Nmcová as a young woman. This was the hopeful young woman who consecrated herself to literature and who inspires me to do the same:
When I felt the most unhappy, the beautiful star of love arose or me…! As if by a miracle, poetry awakened me to life in my unhappiness! It sweetens my life, and I have consecrated myself to it for eternity!
Kelcey Parker is the author of Liliane’s Balcony and For Sale By Owner, which won the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Short Fiction.